Feeds

Did electronic voting pass the test?

Paper trails, anyone?

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Intelligent flash storage arrays

At about the time that Senator John Kerry had accepted defeat and phoned President Bush to congratulate him, stories were circulating on the Internet claiming that the electronic voting machines in Florida and Ohio and some other states might have been rigged for a Bush victory.

The claim stems from the fact that exit polls were indicating a marginal Kerry victory in those key states, but his apparent exit poll advantage was not reflected in the total vote count. This indeed was the shape of the story if you sat through the election night telethon. At first it looked as though Kerry was doing well, but as the night wore on a Bush victory became more and more likely.

So what are we to think of the claim? Despite the "conspiracy theory", there is good reason to believe that it was a genuine Bush victory. First of all, the final outcome reflected the fact that Bush held a small lead in the opinion polls right up to election day. Although all of the individual polls were subject to a margin of error greater than Bush's lead, the aggregation of the polls was still slightly in favour of Bush (and this reduces the statistical error margin).

The pollsters had been plagued by suggestions that they were not properly accounting for the youth vote and most, if not all of them, examined, re-examined and adjusted their weighting parameters in an attempt to account for the expected high youth vote for Kerry. The pollsters have a big self-interest in not being too far wrong.

The indications, on election night itself, were that the level of disenfranchisement through technology failure, long lines of voting and voters being turned away from the polls for lack of proper credentials, was much lower than in 2000 and, although there may have been one or two areas where there were problems, there is no reason to believe that the election was skewed by such incidents.

Another straw in the wind was the gambling money - which has historically provided a reasonable guide to an election's outcome. While it is illegal for most American's to place bets over the Internet (on anything), many of them do. Throughout the whole campaign the betting odds were in Bush's favour - in effect predicting a Bush victory simply by the weight of money that was gambling on that outcome. The figures for the total bets placed (on Betfair one of the leading sites for such bets) was $4.2m on Bush and $1.2m on Kerry.

Finally, the results from Florida and Ohio, which were only marginally in Bush's favour were not particularly out of line with the voting in the US as a whole. As it worked out, these results seemed to reflect the mood of America.

So what are we to think of the electronic voting "conspiracy theory"? Here too there are reasons to pause for thought. The companies that supply the machines (Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, and Sequoia Voting Systems) would destroy their own business if it were ever discovered that the technology was compromised. Would they take the risk? I personally doubt it, especially as it would involve bringing more than one or two people into the "conspiracy", any one of whom could go public on what was going down.

Also, bending the software to affect the result in a very subtle way (and get it right) is probably very difficult to achieve. The margin for failure is high and the whole scheme is very risky.

There is however legitimate cause for concern in the simple fact that many of the electronic voting machines that were deployed did not have audit trails that validated the figures they gave. If there were any kind of malfunction in any of these, there was simply no way to validate the figures. The justification for complete transparency and validation of voting technology is not only desirable but necessary. Indeed if ever there was a case for the open sourcing of program code then this is it.

One hopes that by the time the next major elections in the US come round, there will be paper audit trails on every voting machine deployed.

Copyright © 2004, IT-Analysis.com

Related stories

Bush wins as Reps add seats in Congress
No winner in US presidential election
US presidential race comes down to the wire
NBC deploys 'I can't vote' rant-line

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
The 'fun-nification' of computer education – good idea?
Compulsory code schools, luvvies love it, but what about Maths and Physics?
Facebook, Apple: LADIES! Why not FREEZE your EGGS? It's on the company!
No biological clockwatching when you work in Silicon Valley
Happiness economics is bollocks. Oh, UK.gov just adopted it? Er ...
Opportunity doesn't knock; it costs us instead
Lords take revenge on REVENGE PORN publishers
Jilted Johns and Jennies with busy fingers face two years inside
Ex-US Navy fighter pilot MIT prof: Drones beat humans - I should know
'Missy' Cummings on UAVs, smartcars and dying from boredom
Yes, yes, Steve Jobs. Look what I'VE done for you lately – Tim Cook
New iPhone biz baron points to Apple's (his) greatest successes
Sysadmin with EBOLA? Gartner's issued advice to debug your biz
Start hoarding cleaning supplies, analyst firm says, and assume your team will scatter
Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech
UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'
Doctor Who's Flatline: Cool monsters, yes, but utterly limp subplots
We know what the Doctor does, stop going on about it already
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.